Vowel Power: Methods

Techniques used in our Study of the Texas Accent in Greg Abbott’s and Wendy Davis’s Speech

by Lars Hinrichs, Axel Bohmann, and Erica Brozovsky

Background

When studying the speech of politicians, it is assumed that much of their linguistic performance is just that: a performance, where the choice of words, phrases, and pronunciations is to a considerable degree monitored. While it is hard to obtain any degree of certainty about whether a certain way of pronouncing a word was intentionally chosen or whether a speaker just happened to say a word in a given way, without giving it much thought, we assume that ultimately, the way that an individual speaks in a given social context is symbolic of how he or she wishes to be perceived.

In order to classify Abbott’s and Davis’s speech as closer to either a Texan or a mainstream U.S. English model, we first established two empirical baselines: the first, model Texans, represents speakers of (a version of) the traditional, local accent that many outsiders would expect to hear when meeting a Texan. The second, neutral Texans, exemplifies mainstream U.S. English speech without a strong regional accent – as spoken by Texans. Each group included ten speakers. Together, the two groups provide orientation as to the range of variation one may encounter in Texas between locally accented and neutral, more mainstream-like speech.

We did not follow a specific paradigm for choosing our example Texans; the speakers were selected based on availability and quality of recorded material and our opinion of how well they represent either the model Texan accent or the mainstream U.S English accent. We aimed for an even divide by gender, and each video interview or speech sample we selected was recorded after 2001. All videos were found on YouTube and are linked in the tables below.

Model Texans Birthplace Background DOB Video
Matthew McConaughey Uvalde Longview 11/4/69 Bobby Bones interview
Mary Gordon Spence Brownwood Brownwood ? A Magic Moment story, KUT Story speech
George Strait Poteet Pearsall 5/18/52 Headline Country interview
Joel Burns Fort Worth Crowley 2/4/69 The Last Word interview
Don Meredith Mount Vernon Mount Vernon 4/10/38 SMU interview
Ann Richards Lacy-Lakeview Waco 9/1/33 Texas Politics conversation
Laura Bush Midland Midland 11/4/46 Texas Exes Award, Texas Book Festival
Kay Granger Greenville Fort Worth 1/18/43 Schreier-Fleming interview, USGLC Tribute Dinner
Jim Hightower Denison Denison 1/11/43 Public Citizen interview
Linda Harper Brown Dallas Dallas 3/20/48 Election Video, Transportation Committee statement

After choosing, we transcribed each video and time-aligned the written text to the audio. From there, we measured every instance of our chosen vowels, using the mean as our baseline. A normalization algorithm was applied to make measurements from male and female voices comparable.

To gauge Davis’s and Abbott’s stylistic versatility, we analyzed a number of recordings from both candidates, made between July 2013 and February 2014 in the run-up to the gubernatorial election. These materials were selected in order to provide a wide range of speech contexts, differing with regard to audience, participation structure, and spontaneity. In addition, we opted for recordings that would enable us to draw meaningful comparisons between the two candidates. Hence, within each speech context we chose material with maximally similar contextual parameters.

Neutral Texans Birthplace Background DOB Video
Michelle Beadle Roanoke Boerne 10/23/75 Game of Thrones quiz, Dan Patrick interview
Marie Brenner San Antonio San Antonio 1/1/49 Google Author talk, Flashpoint Apples and Oranges
Linda Ellerbee Bryan Houston 8/15/44 British Royal Family chat, InnerVIEWS interview
Bill Macatee Rome, NY El Paso 11/17/55 Broncos-Raiders game, US Open recap
John Quiñones San Antonio San Antonio 5/23/52 Brookdale TV interview
Melinda Gates Dallas Dallas 6/15/64 Indian Women and Children
Michael Dell Houston Houston 2/23/65 Corporate Valley interview
Paul Lockhart Amarillo Amarillo 4/28/56 Elon University talk
Gloria Feldt Temple Temple 4/13/42 To the Contrary interview, Interview Forward interview
Wendy Kopp Austin Dallas 6/29/67 Charlie Rose interview, Big Think interview

The data presented here comprise five situational categories. First, we included both politicians’ announcement speeches. These are scripted addresses given in front of a politically supportive, co-present audience, but the intended audience is clearly the entire electorate of the State of Texas. With the exception of cheers and chants from the audiences, there is little interaction with other speakers. Next, we analyzed a campaign ad from either camp, for which the intended audience overlaps with that of the announcement speeches, but the rhetoricity of the situation is enhanced both by the possibility to rehearse and do several takes and by the affordances of post-production. Fortunately, we also had access to two separate interviews Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune conducted with Davis and Abbott, respectively. These constitute situations of unscripted, spontaneous — though still highly performative — speech with a higher level of interaction than the other situations. The interviewer was the same in both cases. The final two categories are a speech at a local rally from either candidate as well as an interview on political topics of national interest broadcast to a potentially nation-wide audience.

Abbott Davis
Campaign Announcement San Antonio Haltom City
Campaign Ad Preserve Texas A Texas Story
Interview Evan Smith interview Evan Smith interview
National TheBlaze interview Fort Worth Star-Telegram interview
Local speech Rally with Nugent Stand with Texas Women

We conducted spectrographic measurements of all the vowels in the entire material (both from candidates and control groups) and thus obtained a dataset of formant measurements for 27,427 instances of vowels.

Three American Vowels: ‘PRICE’, ‘FACE’, and ‘PEN’

We decided to focus on three vowels in the speech of the candidates. Using words which illustrate typical pronunciations, we call the vowels PRICE, FACE, and PEN, respectively. All three vowels are variable in Texas, in the sense that there is a more Texan, local-sounding way of pronouncing them and another, more mainstream-U.S.-like variant that speakers can choose from every time they use this vowel.

From our spectrographic measurements we extracted all words containing instances of the PRICE, FACE, or PEN vowels in the speech of Abbott and Davis. In total, we extracted 1,062 vowel tokens for Abbott and 1,216 for Davis. The two control groups are represented at 1,239 vowel instances in total. The extracted data allows us to determine quite exactly, for the three selected vowels, the degree to which the candidates resemble either the model Texans or the neutral Texans.

PRICE

The first vowel we studied is probably the best-known vowel characteristic of Texas English: it is the vowel in the words fly, rice, rise, ice, etc. According to linguistic convention, we label this vowel PRICE.

In strongly local speech in Texas, instances of the PRICE vowel are pronounced as ah: fly sounds like flah, rice sounds like rahs, etc. In mainstream U.S. English, meanwhile, instances of the same vowel are pronounced as a diphthong: the pronunciation starts on an ah sound and moves toward an ee sound, e.g. flah-ee for fly.

The Texas pronunciation of the PRICE vowel is extremely well known – it is a linguistic stereotype of both Texan and Southern speech more generally. Most English speakers can give a reasonable impression of a PRICE-vowel word in a Texas pronunciation. At the same time, speakers can always choose not to sound Texan on this vowel by choosing a more mainstream realization instead.

To calculate the degree of ‘Texanness’ in this vowel, we measured the vowel height for each instance of this vowel at the beginning (nucleus) and at the end (glide) of the vowel. We subtracted height at glide from height at nucleus and thus obtained a value corresponding to the vowel’s degree of modulation: the higher this value, the more mainstream, or the “less Texan,” the vowel produced. The lower this value, the more Texan-sounding each instance of the vowel.

FACE

The second vowel in our study is the FACE vowel: the vowel in words such as chase, faze, hey, eight. It, too, is a diphthong — a vowel that starts in one position and ends in another — and it, too, can be produced in either a more Texan-sounding or a more mainstream-like way. The more traditionally Texan pronunciation has what is called a “lowered nucleus”” (lowered beginning). For example, to a non-Texan, a very locally Texan-sounding pronunciation of the word chase sounds almost like chise. Similarly, faze sounds almost like fize, hey like hi, eight like ite, and so on.

As a feature of Texas English, the FACE vowel with a lowered nucleus is not very much talked about. Unlike the PRICE vowel, this vowel is much more likely to fly beneath the radar of conscious control. This means that a person who is intentionally ‘putting on’ a Texas accent, but who does not speak it naturally, might miss this feature: they are much more likely to consciously control the way they pronounce PRICE vowels than they are FACE vowels.

Our measure to determine the place of each FACE vowel instance on the scale from a more mainstream to a more Texan realization was the same as the one used for PRICE: we subtracted height at glide from height at nucleus. This time, higher values indicated a more local-sounding realization, and lower values indicated pronunciations that sounded more like the mainstream-U.S. norm.

PEN

The third vowel in our study is PEN. Actually, the conventional label for this vowel is DRESS (in words like bed, bet, Ed, etc.), but we narrow down our context to words in which this vowel is followed by a nasal consonant: m, n, or ng. This means that we only studied words like men, end, ten, them, remember, etc., but not bed, rest, bet, etc. (we actually found no instances of this vowel being followed by the ng consonant). Therefore, we changed the label to PEN. As a feature of Texas English, PEN vowels are changed to sound like short i: pen can sound like pin, men like min, ten like tin, and so on. When the PEN vowel gets pronounced in this way, phoneticians say it is raised relative to its more neutral, mainstream pronunciation.

The raised PEN vowel is the ‘youngest’ feature of Texas English: young people throughout Texas, even in big cities like Houston and Dallas, use this feature – while the PRICE and FACE features are more conservative features, i.e. they tend to be used more frequently by older, more rural speakers of Texas English. Like the FACE feature, PEN raising is not constantly talked about among Texans: while some speakers of Texas English are aware that their speech shows this feature, there are also many other speakers who don’t realize that theirs does. That is to say, like the FACE vowel, this feature of the Texas English accent is somewhat less stereotyped than the PRICE feature (in which PRICE vowels are flattened).

Our measure to determine the degree of Texanness for this vowel was, simply, height at nucleus: higher vowels sound more locally Texan, and lower vowels sound more mainstream.

Summary

The method laid out here allows us to measure the Texanness of a given speaker’s speech by degrees. In our blog post Vowel Power: Local Accents and Stylistic Versatility in the 2014 Race for Texas Governor we show it can be used to compare the speech in context of the two current candidates for Texas governor.

Posted in Linguistics, Politics, Texas

Vowel Power: Local Accents and Stylistic Versatility in the 2014 Race for Texas Governor

by Lars Hinrichs, Axel Bohmann, and Erica Brozovsky

As Texas prepares for this year’s gubernatorial elections, we at the Texas English Project wondered: What role does language play in this campaign? Beginning with Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, the linguistic performance of major candidates has attracted a new kind of interest from linguists, journalists, and political commentators. While candidates’ ways of speaking have always attracted commentary, Obama foregrounded a new dimension of political speech: stylistic versatility.

Greg Abbott

More specifically, it is Obama’s ability to code-switch between an unmarked, mainstream-American speaking style and speaking styles that are identifiable as coming from the African-American community. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman have written about Obama’s language use both in the New York Times and in their 2012 book called Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language and Race in the U.S.. They show how Obama’s stylistic versatility sets him apart from other, more traditional candidates for president. For example, they argue that Obama’s 2012 opponent, Mitt Romney, was perceived by the public as flat and invariable, relative to Obama, and that this was due in part to his relatively homogeneous, monostylistic way of using language.

Wendy Davis

The two Texans who are currently running for governor are not part of different ethnic groups, as was the case with Obama and his opponents in 2008 and 2012. Still, we asked ourselves:

  • Does language use distinguish political candidates at the state level the same way it does at the federal level?
  • Are there meaningful differences between candidates in terms of linguistic-stylistic versatility even when they both belong to the same (majority) ethnic group?
  • Is linguistic versatility typically more prevalent in the speech of Democrats, as the example of Obama might suggest?

In order to be able to think about these questions in more detail, we decided to conduct a study of publicly available recordings of both Greg Abbott and Wendy Davis. We set out to find evidence of stylistic versatility in each. It should be clear that we would not expect stylistic variability to be expressed the same way in the two Texan candidates as it is in the President. In other words, we would not expect to find, in either Greg Abbott or Wendy Davis, code-switching behavior between mainstream U.S. English and an ethnically specific variety such as African-American English. However, both candidates spent much of their formative years in Texas: Greg Abbott, who is 56 years old, was born and raised in Dallas County; Wendy Davis, 51 years old, moved to Fort Worth with her family at age 11, coming from Rhode Island. So while Abbott’s exposure to Texan-sounding English in childhood started at an earlier age, Davis was immersed in a Texas-English-speaking environment at a sufficiently young age to still be influenced by it, enabling her to acquire familiarity with, and possibly partial proficiency in, the Texan way(s) of speaking English.

While both candidates have some access to Texan speech forms, they also both grew up fully aware of the supra-regional standard of American English, to which they were exposed through the media, their education, their proximity to a large city, and so on. Thus, both Abbott and Davis have the linguistic resources to vary between more Texan-sounding and more mainstream-U.S.-sounding speech. We can with good reason assume that, like President Obama, they will find it expedient to speak in a more Texan-sounding style in some situations and in more mainstream-sounding style at other times.

FINDINGS: TEXAN CANDIDATES, TEXAN VOWELS

The Texas Accent Index

In our first pass at the data, we formed a “Texas Accent Index” (TAI) for each of three vowels which may be pronounced differently according to whether the speaker has adopted a Texas-style speech variety or a more mainstream-U.S. variety. The vowels chosen were i as pronounced in the word price, a as pronounced in face, and e as pronounced in pen. For example, the vowel i also occurs in the word right: a more Texan pronunciation of this word might have a pronunciation which we could spell raht. The vowels a and e also show differences between Texan speech and a mainstream-U.S. variety.

The index was calculated as follows: for each vowel, the total extent of possible variation was taken to expand from the lowest to the highest value for that vowel in our entire dataset. For each of Abbott’s and Davis’s vowels, then, we calculated its position on that scale as a proportion of the overall range of variation. Thus, we obtained a value between 0 and 1 for each vowel from the candidates. The scales were oriented so that, for each vowel, values closer to 1 indicated that realizations were “more strongly Texan-sounding”, while values closer to 0 stood for realizations that were “more like mainstream U.S. English”.

Figure 1. Texas *Accent Index* for the PRICE, FACE, and PEN vowels. *Higher* values indicate more local-sounding realizations of these vowels.

As Figure 1 shows above, Abbott’s mean TAI scores for all three vowels are higher than Davis’s. This observation is in line with every hypothesis we had about the data: more local-sounding speech is typically associated with males more than with females, with older speakers more than with younger speakers (although the age difference between Abbott and Davis is only five years), and in addition, Abbott has the biographical “advantage” of having spent his entire childhood near Dallas, which gave him greater exposure to Texas forms of speech, compared to Davis’s late start at age 11.

Returning now to our original interest in versatility, we will look at each vowel individually, and subsequently try to see if we can explain any variation in the two candidates’ use of these vowels in the different speaking contexts that we captured by our selection of data.

PRICE

Results for the PRICE vowel are shown in Figure 2 below. For this vowel, the larger the F1 delta, the closer to the mainstream American English pronunciation a given pronunciation is. Thus, in our graph, lower bars indicate more “Texan” pronunciations. The two horizontal lines show the means for two control groups: model Texans, with speech characteristic of a Texas variety, and neutral Texans, with speech closer to the mainstream-U.S. variety.

Figure 2. Abbott’s and Davis’s realizations of the PRICE vowel in different situations. *Higher* values stand for more mainstream-sounding realizations of the vowel.

Abbott pronounces his PRICE vowels more closely to the local, Texas English norm than Davis in every context we studied: the chart shows his PRICE vowels clustering around the horizontal line for the model Texans in every context. Davis, on the other hand, orients much more to the neutral Texans: in three out of five contexts, she even out-performs the neutral Texans, achieving mean F1 delta values that are even higher than the mainstream control group’s. In other words, Davis avoids this stereotype of Texan speech even more strongly than the neutral baseline.

It is interesting to consider how context explains both candidates’ variation for this vowel. Davis varies in a way that can easily be explained by her audience: she has the least amount of modulation in the vowel at a local campaign event in Texas, where she addresses (almost) only locals; the highest (closest to mainstream) value is achieved at the campaign announcement, a highly formal event whose audience can easily be thought of as “the whole world”, i.e. transcending Texas.

By contrast, Abbott’s variability is rather small, and the difference among contexts cannot be explained very well by audience type. If we consider only this vowel, it appears that Abbott just talks the way he talks: with a fairly low F1 delta for PRICE, close to the model Texan norm, and differences among speaking contexts seem more or less incidental.

FACE

Figure 3 below shows results for the FACE vowel. Note that the low/high mapping to the Texan/mainstream binary here is reversed: larger measurements for the F1 delta indicate a more traditionally Texan-sounding realization of the vowel; smaller measurements are more like mainstream realizations. Correspondingly, the horizontal line for neutral Texans is lower than the line for model Texans.

The results reflect the fact that the lowered beginning of the FACE vowel that arises in Texas English (the pronunciation of face could be written fice) is a less stereotyped feature of Texas English than the variation in PRICE: speakers are not as fully aware of the feature, so they apply less conscious control to it. The picture is less orderly. Even though the TAI values for this vowel tell us that overall Abbott’s performance on this vowel is consistently closer to the model Texan norm than Davis’s, his average F1 delta values are only larger than Davis’s in two out of five contexts, while Davis’s are higher in the others.

Figure 3. Abbott’s and Davis’s realizations of the FACE vowel in different situations. *Lower* values stand for more mainstream-sounding realizations of the vowel.

It is interesting that Abbott out-performs Davis most strongly on this index of Texanness at the local campaign event, a rally with the country singer Ted Nugent. Recall from Figure 2 that for the PRICE vowel, Abbott and Davis were basically on a par for the “local event” context. This finding might be explained by the fact that quite possibly, even Abbott applies some conscious control to his vowels: he may have been overcorrecting against assumed expectations at the Ted Nugent event, intentionally avoiding overly clichéd pronunciations of the strongly stereotyped PRICE vowel. And so – even though the event headliner was a rock star appealing to a conservative fan base, and even though the audience was made up mostly of locals – he did not over-perform on flattened PRICE vowels. By contrast, the FACE vowel is not as much controlled by speakers’ awareness. This may explain why on this vowel, Abbott performs exactly according to the hypothesis that local events with local audiences would trigger the most local-sounding speech.

Another remarkable fact is that in the two campaign contexts (Campaign Announcement and Campaign Ad) Davis outperforms Abbott in terms of the localness of this vowel. Davis is a speaker who, overall, avoids sounding like our model Texan control group, but for a vowel feature that has as little stereotype attached to it as FACE vowel lowering, she may – more or less consciously – converge to the Texan norm, despite her overall design.

Finally, we note that the Campaign Ad context shows basically the converse picture to the Local Event context. A TV ad for the campaign is, arguably, the speaking context that holds the greatest potential for candidates to plan their way of speaking. In other words, candidates are most likely to “perform” in an ad. In this context, we find Abbott using very clearly de-accented, or mainstream-like, pronunciations of the FACE vowel, while Davis uses pronunciations that are very strongly Texan-accented. In other words: Abbott projects a supra-regional face in the ad, while Davis projects a local, Texan identity by her language use, at least for this vowel. Meanwhile, at the local event, we would expect much more spontaneous (and less performative) kinds of language use. Here, we find Davis using forms of the vowel that are closer to the mainstream norm (i.e. closer to the “Neutral Texans’” values), and Abbott choosing Texas-accented vowels.

It appears that the two candidates’ approaches toward Texas-accented speech are each other’s opposites: Davis, despite her exposure to the Texas accent in childhood, was socialized primarily as a speaker of mainstream U.S. English. Given the chance to plan and perform her speech, as in the recording of a campaign ad, she projects a recognizably local character. Abbott, meanwhile, speaks with the Texas accent more naturally (as the local event context shows) — but when planning his performance on the recorded campaign ad, he makes an effort to show that he is also capable of speaking in a mainstream-accented way. We will return to these observations in the conclusion below.

PEN

Texas English typically raises the PEN vowel — our way of referring to the short e vowel before nasals (m, n, and ng). For example the word men in Texas speech often comes out as min; the words gentle and reMEMber, among others, show a similar variation. Even though younger speakers use this Texas accent feature very widely, it is not very strongly stereotyped: Texans do use this accent feature, but they don’t talk about it much.

Figure 4. Abbott’s and Davis’s realizations of the PEN vowel in different situations. *Higher* values stand for more mainstream-sounding realizations of the vowel.

As Figure 4 above shows, Abbott and Davis diverge very consistently on this feature. (Note for this chart that higher values indicate more mainstream-like vowels, and lower values indicate more Texan-sounding vowels.) Abbott’s PEN vowels, in keeping with his Texan roots, cluster around the model Texan baseline. Meanwhile, Davis’s measurements are not just as high as the neutral Texan control group’s — they are consistently higher than the baseline. This finding confirms not only that, as one would expect, Davis failed to adopt some of the accent features of Texas English, especially in the case of a feature such as this, which is adopted and advanced by children. It also supports our impressionistic observation that Davis has traces of a broadly West Coast accent: lowered PEN vowels are an innovative feature of California speech. Given Davis’s biographical influences (Northeast/Texas), we find ourselves only able to conjecture why she might exhibit this accent feature. It is possible that she aims toward an accent that stands for a modern, Californian, female American. At any rate, Davis clearly disregards the local, Texas-accented norm for this vowel class entirely.

CONCLUSION

In summary, we found that:

  • Both Abbott and Davis show linguistic versatility across speaking contexts.
  • While Davis is slightly more linguistically versatile than Abbott, Abbott is clearly and more consistently oriented to the norm of Texas-accented English.
  • Considering our findings for the three vowels together, Davis emerges as predominantly using a mainstream U.S. English accent, while Abbott aligns, in most contexts, with the Texas accent of English.
  • Remarkably, both candidates depart from this pattern in their respective campaign ads: here, Abbott tempers his Texas accent, while Davis puts one on, if only partly: modification of the FACE vowel is the only Texas accent feature she seems to occasionally embrace strongly; for the other vowel classes that we studied, Davis showed an overall robust orientation toward mainstream U.S. English.

Editor’s Note: The authors explain in a second post some of the details behind their analysis of Texas speech.

Posted in Linguistics, Politics, Texas

The Second Amendment: Our Latinate Constitution

The Second Amendment, as written, really doesn't say anything about personal protection

The New Yorker recently posted a poignant and direct commentary by Jeffrey Toobin concerning popular understanding, or the lack thereof, of the Second Amendment to the Constitution: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Mr. Toobin introduces this phrase by stating, “The text of the amendment is divided into two clauses and is, as a whole, ungrammatical…”. Overall Mr. Toobin’s commentary provides numerous insights, but I find this introduction to the Amendment slightly in error. The sentence is extremely grammatical, and failure to recognize the grammatical relations involved opens the door to serious misinterpretation.

Begin with the claim that the sentence contains two clauses. This depends on how you interpret the term “clause”. If by “clause” we signify “a verb and a subject”, then yes, we have two clauses: “A… militia being…” and “the right… shall not be infringed”. But this interpretation of “clause” is very technical and may lead to some odd conclusions for the non-linguist. By this definition, “Bob winning was unfair” has two clauses, shown here in brackets: “[[Bob winning] was unfair]”. That is, [Bob winning] has a verb “winning”, and “Bob” is the subject, the one “winning”. And that whole notion, the winning that Bob seems to be doing, is itself the subject of the verb “was”, so we have a second clause. But that’s not the only notion of “clause”. More importantly it’s likely not the notion applied by educated 18th-century gentry.

The second notion of “clause” is “a conjugated (or finite) verb together with a grammatical subject”. Simply put, we conjugate a verb when we change its form to accommodate differing subjects: “I go” is a conjugated verb plus a subject, since if we change the subject to “he”, we must also reflect that change in the verb: “he goes”. By this definition, “A… militia being necessary…” is not a clause. If we change the subject, this change is not reflected in the verb: “… me being necessary…”, “… you being necessary…”, “… a horse being necessary…”, “… twelve reindeer and a candy cane being necessary…”. That is, “being” is not a conjugated verb. It’s merely a participle, a second-class citizen in the verbal metropolis.

We should apply this second notion of a clause in our interpretational voyage through the Second Amendment precisely because it is the definition one encounters in the study of classical languages such as Greek and Latin. At the time the Founding Fathers penned the Constitution, Latin formed a mainstay of upper-class education. Moreover, even in the unlikely circumstance that those Founding Fathers who shaped the phraseology of the Constitution had little familiarity with Latin, nevertheless the categories and structures of Latin permeated, or even provided the model for, the teaching and understanding of English grammar during that period.

One particularly important Latin construction, oft maligned by students of Caesar’s Commentaries, was the dreaded ablative absolute. The “ablative” is a Latin “case”: a way of modifying a noun to show its function in a sentence. English too has cases: “Bob” can be the subject of a verb (“Bob bites the dog”) or the object (“The dog bites Bob”). But the modified form “Bob’s” denotes possession: “I bit Bob’s dog.” By changing the ending, we alter the relation of the noun “Bob” to the other elements of the sentence. English has very few of these cases, Latin many. One of these is the ablative.

The Latin ablative plays a special role in absolute constructions: structures composed of a noun and a participle (like “being”, a non-finite verb) which are grammatically independent of the rest of the sentence, though they convey important information relevant to the sentence. Because they are absolute, i.e. grammatically independent, no particular case really suits the noun and accompanying participle: the case denotes the grammatical function of the noun in the sentence, but a noun in an absolute construction has no such function. Nevertheless Latin as a linguistic system requires each noun to have a case, just like English requires us to say “I go” rather than “me go”. And so Latin tosses absolutes into the ablative — the junk case, really, the case that Latin puts nouns in when it doesn’t know what else to do with them.

Ah, Latin. How quaintly antique with its numerous cases and its ablatives absolute. Fitting that Latin and its complicated grammar should be confined to the Halls of History — or of the Vatican! But… we have absolute constructions in English too. They’re often short and frequently informational throwaways. Imagine, for example, a debate hosted by a moderator. After a comment by one debater, the moderator might shift to the second debater by saying, “That being said, we should ask the esteemed Ms. S…”. That little introductory quip, “that being said”, is an absolute. It has no grammatical relation to our asking something of Ms. S. Sometimes we shorten it even further: “That said, we should…”.

So absolutes are all over the place, both in English and in Latin. What’s their point? Grammatically, not much, since they’re absolute. Really they provide additional information bearing on the rest of the statement (otherwise they’d be left out, right?). For example, we find in Cicero’s Oration on Pompey’s Command: mercātōribus … iniūriōsius tractātīs bella gessērunt(our) traders having been treated rather badly, (our ancestors) waged war” (5). And in his Oration for Milo: semper exīstimābitis vīvō P. Clōdiō nihil eōrum vōs vīsūrōs fuisse “you will always think that, (with) Publius Clodius being alive, you would never have seen any of these things” (28). Evidently it’s up to the reader to figure out the connection, but these examples show they can be pretty important: e.g. whether Publius is alive or not decides the question of how likely you are to have seen these things. In fact a primary use of the absolute construction in Latin is to give the conditions under which the rest of the sentence is valid. And we see this in everyday English: “My philosophical leanings being what they are, I would draw a different conclusion.” The absolute tells me what has to be true for me to draw my conclusion, i.e. my leanings have to be a certain way.

And that brings us back to the Second Amendment. The Amendment, as written, is in fact eminently grammatical. The Founding Fathers were no strangers to absolute constructions. Still in that era the height of written English style was to emulate compositional techniques of the classical Greek and Latin authors. And in the Second Amendment, everything up to the comma — “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state,…” — is an absolute construction. It is not a “clause” in our schoolmarmish sense of the word, nor is it meant to be. Grammatically it has nothing to do with the rest of the sentence: “regulated”, “militia”, “necessary”, “security”, “free”, “state” — none of these words recur in the sentence. So why is that absolute there? To provide the conditions under which the rest of the sentence is valid. That is, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” only insofar as this accords with the necessity of maintaining a “well regulated militia” to insure the “security of a free state”.

Where does this leave us? As a well constructed sentence, the Second Amendment says this: the people have a right to bear arms, inasmuch as that pertains to forming a regulated militia to secure a free state. Nothing more, nothing less. What of the right to personal self-protection? Who knows! — the Second Amendment does not talk about that. The main clause, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”, cannot be read without the preceding absolute — otherwise the Founding Fathers would have omitted that absolute. (I take it as given that they included in the Constitution only those words that they thought should be there and be interpreted; that they didn’t insert window-dressing or fluff.) Moreover, assuming the Founding Fathers were rather well educated, none of them would have misunderstood the limiting condition that the initial absolute put on the concluding main clause. Importantly it sets the topic: the militia, not the individual. We can certainly hem and haw as to the meaning of individual terms in the Second Amendment — “militia”, “well regulated”, “the people”, “security”, “infringed”, “arms” — but we should be crystal-clear as to the grammar. If one thing is manifest, it’s that the initial absolute puts a limit on the applicability of the main clause; the latter cannot and should not be interpreted without the former.

Nota Bene: The text of this post was actually written December 18, 2012. But we needed to create a blog here at the LRC in order to publish it! Of course in the meantime other scholars have had the same reaction to Mr. Toobin’s column, one of these being published in the excellent Language Log at UPenn. Regardless of any similarities, the two articles were written independently.

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Posted in Constitution, Latin

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